The book is essentially Byron’s diary of a 11 months travelling around (with a bit of to and from) Persia and Afghanistan in 1933 when he was about 29. It has a 1980s introduction by Bruce Chatwin, which somehow manages to be more anachronistic than the main work. It’s light, readable, and if, like me, you know little more of the history of Islamic architecture than thinking that the Registan at Samarkand looks very impressive, or the modern history of Persia and Afghanistan as nation states, very educational. Architecture is Byron’s passion. Sometimes alone, sometimes in company with his friend Christopher, formally of the British legation in Persia, Byron travels round the two countries attempting to reach, record, and occasionally sneak into**, a variety of mosques, minarets, mausoleums, and towers. In this he is hampered by the state of the roads, railways, horses, and weather: it rains a lot more than you’d expect in Iran and every other journey seems to involve digging a car out of the mud. Despite this he loves the architecture, the scenery, and is clearly having a fantastic time. Byron is a very entertaining narrator (“Just in time for the ball,” shouted Mrs Gastrell as we staggered up the steps of the consulate. Does the whole Indian Political Service travel about Asia with dressing-up boxes?”), and I suspect that much of the success of both journey and narrative comes down to his being not only well-informed and enthusiastic, but very personable. He’s sincerely appreciative of all the people who assist him, interested in what they have to tell him, and always happy to sit down and be fed or entertained or squash into a crowded bus as long as it is going in the right direction.
Have some landscape and ruins:
After Akcha, the colour of the landscape changed from lead to aluminium, pallid and deathly, as if the sun had been sucking away its gaiety for thousands and thousands of years; for this was now the plain of Balkh, and Balkh they say is the oldest city in the world. The clumps of green trees, the fountain-shaped tufts of coarse cutting grass, stood out almost black against this mortal tint. Sometimes we saw a field of barley; it was ripe, and Turcomans, naked to the waist, were reaping it with sickles. But it was not brown or gold, telling of Ceres, of plenty. It seemed to have turned prematurely white, like the hair of a madman – to have lost its nourishment. And from these acred cerements, first on the north and then on the south of the road, rose the worn grey-white shapes of a bygone architecture, mounds, furrowed and bleached by the rain and sun, wearier than any human works I ever saw: a twisted pyramid, a tapering platform, a clump of battlements, a crouching beast, all familiars of the Bactrian Greeks, and of Marco Polo after them. They ought to have vanished. But the very impact of the sun, calling out the obstinacy of their ashen clay, has conserved some inextinguishable spark of form, a spark such as a Roman earthwork or a grass-green barrow has not, which still flickers on against a world brighter than itself, tired as only a suicide frustrated can be tired.
* The political situation meant that Byron made it to Oxiana, but not the Oxus. I am luckier in that I should see it in a couple of months - I am finally taking the plunge and going to Uzbekistan, resolution spurred by a Guardian travel article and slemslempike’s travelogue from last summer, except that I am less intrepid than her and not going independently. Alas, though Byron at one point was 15 hours by train from Bokhara, visas weren’t available.
** The mosque in Isfahan, assisted by a local teacher.